Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading List: The Enchantress of Florence

The Enchantress of Florence
by Salman Rushdie

I did not come to read Salman Rushdie for the first time except by accident.  A coworker happened to have a copy of his seminal and infamous work, The Satanic Verses, that she had but had never been able to finish.  I offered to accept the challenge of succeeding where she'd failed, and so spent the next several months doing so during breaks.  It was an experience that quickly revealed itself as one of the finest books I've ever read.  I've been looking forward to reading Rushdie again ever since, and so here now is The Enchantress of Florence, one of his more recent works.  He is an author that every lover of literature must read at least once in their life.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Thoughts on Gentlemen of the Road

If reading books were like watching movies or listening to music, I bet pop culture would be a lot different than it is right now.

Except reading books, for most people, necessarily takes longer than a few hours.  Hell, reading books for some people takes months.  What this means is that when you find a writer you really like, it can be a little complicated to read all of their works, especially if you aren't planning on just reading them.  (Not to mention that one of the problems you're bound to face is that it's a lot harder to find all of an author's books than it is to find all of the movies in a particular sequence or all of the music from someone's catalog.)

Anyway, to cut that short, what I really mean to say is, I've just gotten around to reading my second Michael Chabon, after The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and that was a decade ago.  I won't be reading another one for maybe another year or so (it's on the Reading List, so I know, and it's The Final Solution).  Gentlemen of the Road, though, holds a fairly curious position for me.  For dedicated Chabon fans, the essay he includes at the back of the book talks a great deal about how this story is a considerable detour from what he usually writes, or what he wrote last millennium, what he describes as modern naturalism, which is to say stories set in modern times using fairly common modern experiences (he lists divorce in his examples about a dozen times).

He also writes from a Jewish perspective, and isn't shy to admit it, and Gentlemen of the Road, he half-jokes, was almost called "Jews with Swords."  From someone who read Kavalier & Clay (a book about a couple of Jewish boys creating a superhero called the Escapist in the Golden Age of comic books, around the same time as the debut of Superman, who was also created by a bunch of Jewish boys) first, it's not hard to see how Chabon ended up writing a period piece about Jewish characters, but that's exactly what my prior experience was.  That one won the Pulitzer, and by definition has come to define his literary career, so it's not so surprising that he grew a little ambitious following it (not that he admits as such in so many words in that essay).

What Gentlemen of the Road really is is Chabon going full-ethnic, in the sense that he's no longer an American writer, but a Jewish one, regardless of the period setting.  He's no longer writing modern naturalism, but writing, basically, world literature.  That may be the real adjustment anyone needs to make in order to read it.

In many ways, it's not so different from what Marlon Brando did when he wrote (or started writing, which someone else later finished, and the transition is clear) Fan-Tan, a book that is chock-full of character details (in the beginning that reads like a typical Brando character sketch) but is otherwise a little aimless.  Gentlemen of the Road is about a couple of buddies (which to my experience is the basic Chabon plot) who stumble into a series of developments that snowball into a story, but are really just a series of events, like The Canterbury Tales if each of the pilgrims were relating a single narrative from a different perspective (like a traveling Rashomon, but with plot points that advance rather than reiterate the action).

It's a little tedious, as Chabon immerses himself in details that makes for what some people expect as necessary literary window dressing, and one gets the sense that this is exactly what he was aiming for, to show off his prowess, but then, there's also just enough lucidity that it can also be described as comfortably obscure, the way comic book writers Grant Morrison and Paul Cornell write, so that you don't necessarily need to know or care about everything that's going on, so long as you can follow the thrust of what's happening.  The buddies are ultimately detached from everything anyway, and it's enough to know that they survive some crazy things because that's what they do.  There are some really good sentences.

Jews throughout history have been the pariahs of society, and part of the reason why is that they've made an artform of sticking to their own.  It may be safe to say that the modern entertainment machine has produced more visible Jews than at any other point in history, because entertainment is the only place where you can hide in plain sight, calling attention to yourself while calling attention to something else entirely, whether in a movie, a joke, or a book.  Chabon wonders if anyone would take a Jew with a sword seriously, and the answer is yes, because they don't have to picture Woody Allen, even if he is one of the more famous Jewish entertainers today, or that we still have the collective hangover of the Holocaust to be reminded that recently Jews have still had a tough time of it, and that Israel is a country that's been besieged since its inception.  You've got someone like Mel Gibson who can be accused of being antisemitic one minute and want to make a movie about Judas Maccabee the next.  (This dude was a warrior badass in the Old Testament.)  Not surprisingly, because most of us want to believe in only polarizing facts, he has not been able to make that film yet.

Yet that's exactly what Chabon is trying to work against in Gentlemen of the Road, to chip away at the culture of contradiction.  There's a woman who pretends to be a man, even when the jig is up, throughout the book, and that's one of the best elements in it.  Chabon claims that this is not the book anyone would expect him to write, but to anyone taking it seriously, it's exactly what someone in his position would have done, now that it no longer matters that he try and appease the literary establishment and instead write what every writer wants to write, something that has meaning to them rather than what some people thinks has more universal appeal.  Kavalier & Clay was about comic books, which last time I checked was not exactly part of the literary establishment.

So long story short, I think Michael Chabon is probably worth the investment in time to read.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Reading List: Gentlemen of the Road

Gentlemen of the Road
by Michael Chabon

Ever since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, I've wanted to read more Michael Chabon.  I think this was a common phenomenon in the past decade.  Chabon had already produced a number of critically acclaimed books, including Wonder Boys, but he became culturally relevant in one of the most unexpected ways possible, by writing about comic book creators.  As a fan of comic books, I had to be immediately intrigued, but it was also immediately clear that Chabon was also simply an excellent writer.  He's written a lot of books since Kavalier & Clay, and yet I haven't until now gotten back around to him.  The good thing about books is that they stick around for a while.  Gentlemen of the Road will be my first real test of whether or not I keep him around.  (I think I will.)

Thoughts on Science Fair

Dave Barry is an American treasure.

As a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist, he was cherished for decades and has published numerous books collecting and inspired by his wacky observations, and has for the past decade been working as a novelist, where he's had his greatest success co-writing the Peter & the Starcatchers books with Ridley Pearson.  His original novel, Big Trouble, was adapted into the best Tim Allen movie hardly anyone has seen.  And he knows how to identify strange word coupling That Would Make a Great Name for a Rock Band.

But seriously, he's an American treasure.  Science Fair, also written with Pearson, is a prime example.  Written more like Big Trouble and Tricky Business  than the five existing Starcatcher books, it's a breakdown of what exactly being an American in the past fifty years has really been like, exaggerated as only Barry can accomplish it, so that a more accurate portrait of what the American Dream is currently like can be seen.  There are dozens of cartoons and parodies and fake news broadcasts that attempt to do what Barry has done, but none of them are as comprehensive and piercing, and the only reason why this fact is not recognized is that he's so irreverent that it seems like he's just messing around.  I'd argue that he isn't, and Science Fair may be the best example of that.

The heart of this story is a group of middle schoolers who get sucked into the annual hysteria for their class's science fair, which has happened because of an Internet billionaire's cash reward to the winner, which has increased every year.  The results have been appropriately absconded by a bunch of spoiled brats whose parents do most of the work, and the local mall science shop's proprietor does the rest.  The underdogs are the average student, who don't want to see it happen again, and have an alarming reason this year, because the projects being concocted by this unholy alliance have been manipulated into an impending act of terrorism.

Yes, a middle school science fair becomes the grounds for terrorism.

Pearson is mostly here for structural support, unlike the Starcatcher books, which exhibit a much tighter collaboration between the two writers.  Most of the time it's classic Dave Barry.  The best element of the story is the weird foreign nation responsible for the terrorist and his luckless countrymen who are fond of a cheese called "smerk."  This is where the reader truly gets a sense of what Barry is capable of, parodying not just America but the world in general, the kind of country, or the perception of the kind of country, that produces terrorists, so thoroughly backwater even Scott Adams and his mud-covered foreigners would be ashamed.  Yet Barry's accurate vision is that even in this context, there is the chance that even one individual with a plan can make everything that seems to work against them turn around, with the right combination of elements, which just so happen to exist in America.

Written years before Occupy Wall Street, Science Fair illustrates how dangerous privilege and apathy can really be, so that parents who think they have everything, and that their kids must in turn have everything without really working for or earning it can be a deadly combination, and so very easily manipulated.  In fact, the story might also, in its way, explain the recession the country slipped into at the very moment of publication.  Have we learned anything?

But I'm not trying to preach, and neither is Barry, at least not any more than he ever did, or what Mark Twain did in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He's simply observing what he's always observed, and writing about it in a story, in much the way Big Trouble did years earlier.  Science Fair reads like a bad Hollywood family film sometimes, but that's also part of the act, because bad Hollywood family films also expose all the cliches we have around us, the distorted version of reality we help exist by allowing Disney to remain dominant in the entertainment industry.  In this book, instead of Disney we get Star Wars, another treasured cultural institution that gets relentlessly lampooned.  It's funny, because like the Starcatcher books, Science Fair is actually published by Disney.  Disney has obviously never actually read Dave Barry.  In Dave Barry's world, this makes perfect sense.

If you've ever been curious about Dave, you can probably start here.  It's a thrilling adventure, first and foremost, but it's also classic Dave Barry, and a horribly appropriate mirror to today's America, levitating frogs and wiener wagons and all.  Things happen and exist that are improbable, but that's what we all continue to believe is possible, even though there are so many reasons to be cynical.  Reading Dave Barry is like believing there's enough sanity in the world to accept the lunacy and roll with it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reading List: Science Fair

Science Fair
by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson

From the duo responsible for the Peter & the Starcatchers books (which has apparently now become a play), Science Fair is my latest excuse to read Dave Barry (not that I need one), what now seems like a precursor to the direction he and Pearson took the Starcatcher books in Sword of Mercy, which I read last fall, dragging the action into the present.  Barry recently co-wrote Lunatics with Alan Zweibel, his latest attempt to transition from humor columnist into a full-fledged career in books.  I've always believed in him (Big Trouble was brilliant), but his chances at becoming the new Mark Twain may be permanently mired in his perpetually juvenile instincts.  This is not a bad thing, though.  Of all the people who've believed they know what being a juvenile adult means in today's pop culture, he's still the one who best knows what exactly that means.  I guess I'll soon know if Science Fair illustrates this point, too.

Thoughts on Everything Matters!

Being pleasantly surprised to discover your instincts were right is always a good thing.  Having those expectations obliterated is more rare.  That's already happened to me once this year, with Zachary Mason's The Lost Books of the Odyssey, so I wasn't exactly expecting it to happen again.

I knew when I first read about Everything Matters! that it was going to be something I wanted to read, and so I got it, put it on the Reading List, and waited for it to be at the top of the queue, and by that time, I'd pretty much forgotten why I was so interested in it.  I quietly slipped the slipcase jacket from the cover when that day finally arrived, and started reading.  For the first few pages, and even after the big reveal of Ron Currie, Jr.'s overarching concept for the book, I still compared it to some other books I've read recently, like Union Atlantic, or The Unnamed, or even Before I Go to Sleep (all of which, in their ways, were exceptional, inventive reads).  By the end, I decided Currie was a better writer than T.C. Boyle, had the kind of vision Salman Rushdie impressed on me with The Satanic Verses, and is comparable to the folksy appeal and scope of Stephen King in his best works.

He is, in fact, the first writer I've been able to compare to King, and it's really not a bad thing to be associated with Rushdie.  

Everything Matters! tracks a man who could be played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a movie, someone who's smarter than anyone else in the room but unlucky enough to be in circumstances that rarely favor him.  Of course, when they do the guy's positively transcendent.  The thing that truly makes our main character stand out, however, is the knowledge an impartial (for the most part) observer transmits to him throughout his life, including within the womb, of the many details that should otherwise be inaccessible to him or anyone else, including not only the fact that the world is indeed coming to an end, but the precise date on which this will occur.

This understandably has a significant impact on his life.  Shifting perspectives from the main character to the observer to the several people in his life that inevitably define it, including his father, mother, brother, and lover, Currie masterfully weaves a tale that helps explain that title, how the main character struggles to comprehend this wisdom, and what he does with it.  The details are often larger than life, but just as often grounded in the mundane and predictable self-destructive habits that so often destroys lives in our modern times.  There are cultural touchstones Currie relies on to convey some of this, though he notably skirts around 9/11, using it more for the inconveniences it produces than for the moment in time it creates, because of course the end of the world is still bigger than that singular morning.  But that's what the whole book is like, figuring out how moments like that can come to define everything we are, if we let them.

This is fiction as it ought to be, exploring what we know we are and what we might be, if we are willing to suspend our disbelief.  The Cubs have not won the World Series, and there has been no genius that I know of who's selectively cured cancer, and ten-year-old environmentalists have not changed the world, but these things happen in Everything Matters!, but none of these events are really the point.  The point, made in a very surreal and magnificent way, is that life is something you live, rather than hide from.

That's literature at its best.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reading List: Everything Matters!

Everything Matters!
by Ron Currie, Jr.

It can sometimes be hard to find the truly fruitful modern literature, because most of what's popular is fairly standard material, the book club fiction that presents someone in relatively trying or quirky circumstances that may sound like worthwhile material but ultimately isn't.  The most egregious recent version of this phenomenon is The Help.  It may be a good read, but it is offensive in all the wrong ways.  So it's always a treat for me to discover something like Everything Matters!, an overlooked entry that subverts this trend and merely attempts to be good literature, a true challenge, something popular reading can sometimes acknowledge, but maybe not so much at the moment.  On the surface, it does seem to be one of the fairly typical McSweaney's experiences, but it's not from McSweaney's, so there's a chance it's more than that.  I guess I'll find out!

Thoughts on The Siege of Troy

Back in 2004 when Wolfgang Peterson's Troy was released in theaters, Tor Books had the idea to release a new translation of the movie's chief inspiration, The Iliad, renaming it The Siege of Troy, y'know, just in case most moviegoers weren't hip to Troy also being referenced, obliquely, as Ilium.  Greg Tobin, I don't know, was given this challenge, but his editors took the day off, and the the resulting effort was littered with typos.

That's as much as you need to know about how this particular book came about, or as near as I can tell.  Otherwise, it's got nothing to do with Troy, which removed all overt influence and elements of Greek gods from the story, and is, like many other people have done over the past few millennia, a new version of the classic tale as originally developed by someone we know as Homer, based on, yes, the siege of Troy.

So much scholarly obsession has gone into trying to figure out who Homer was (which is a folly akin to trying to explain who Shakespeare was, assuming that it could not possibly have been Shakespeare himself) that few people stop to try and actually analyze the story of The Iliad, reducing it when they do to basics that don't conform to what Homer at the very least helped codify many hundreds of years after the events depicted in the narrative.  Tobin's version is not hugely different from translations from the likes of Robert Graves (The Anger of Achilles) or Robert Fitzgerald, and is probably, as Tor Books hoped, one of the cleaner, friendlier versions now available that retains the flavor and character of the original (such as it can be called) text.  It's just strange that even when someone like Alessandro Baricco (An Iliad) attempts to do a more modern version, they still cling to the same fairly archaic outline that treats it like an antique, which is fine as far as preserving history goes, but there are so many versions that it's hardly likely that the original will be lost anytime soon.  That's what makes what Zachary Mason did in The Lost Books of the Odyssey so brilliant (except, as the title suggests, Mason mostly concentrates on variations of The Odyssey, though he references the Trojan War frequently as well, just as Margaret Atwood does in The Penelopiad).

The story, for anyone interested, basically boils down thusly:

Agamemnon is told that one of the women he's taken into possession along a series of raids in the lead-up to the Trojan War must be relinquished, and his reaction is to claim someone else's prize (another woman), and since Achilles pipes up, he chooses to claim Achilles', which Achilles is so vexed about he opts to remove himself from the fighting around the walls of Troy.  This has bad consequences, because Achilles is the best and most effective fighter in the Greek alliance.  His opposite in the Trojan army, Hector, benefits a great deal, since none of the warriors who attempt to fill the void left by Achilles can manage the task.  Diomedes, Agamemnon, and Odysseus are all eventually wounded in their efforts, and must withdraw from the fight.  Two men named Ajax do their best, and Menelaus, the man whose wife (Helen) was stolen by Paris and brought to Troy, thus triggering the conflict, can't quite fit the bill, either, but is probably the most effective of the remaining warriors.  Eventually, crazy Nestor, the old warrior everyone relies on for council, convinces Patroclus, who is the trusted right-hand man of Achilles, to try and fill the void, and Hector kills him.  Then Achilles, mad with grief, finally returns to battle, slays Hector, and eventually gives the body up to Hector's father, Priam, all the while reflecting on the ironies of fate and fortune.  Oh, and various Greek gods interfere like crazy, but mostly to the effect of echoing the same things.

Modern storytellers would probably want to explain how the war eventually ends, or even how Achilles dies not so long after these events in the same conflict, but that's not what The Iliad does, nor even include the Trojan Horse depicted on the cover of Tobin's book.  The brilliance of it, faithfully preserved by generations of scholars who don't seem to truly appreciate what they're doing, is that the story isn't about the war, but about how Achilles chooses to ignore both his stature and the folly of man in order to stand on principle, to be free to be in control of his own destiny, which seems incredibly odd if you don't understand his reasoning very well, because he knows exactly what that destiny is.  He isn't ultimately concerned with that end result so much as how he reaches it, and will not be coerced unless he himself agrees with the decisions.  he rejects treasures because he knows they are meaningless to the dead, and very nearly chooses to accept an alternate destiny that would rob him of earthly glory and a short life and instead give him a long, mundane one, because he values life and dignity (a little funny, that, considering how many times he drags Hector's dead body around Troy).

Anyway, there's a reason why I've been obsessed with this story, and Tobin does a good job of making that clear with his precise language (again, even though there are numerous typos).  Modern readers would do well to read The Siege of Troy.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Reading List: The Siege of Troy

The Siege of Troy
by Greg Tobin

My Homeric marathon concludes, finally, with a translation of The Iliad I originally purchased in 2004, when it was released to coincide with the theatrical debut of Wolfgang Peterson's underrated Troy.  I've been pecking away, as I've stated previously, at The Siege of Troy  for some time now, and while it was my original intention to continue doing that, I am now content to finish it as an unofficial entrant in the Reading List, since it now fits comfortably in a sequence it will help round out as probably the most recent strict translation of the original narrative.  Like Robert Graves, Tobin was given the task of taking the text and putting a modern wash on it but otherwise leaving it intact, and so it'll be interesting to read one such book after another.

And then I'll move onto other stories!

Thoughts on The Anger of Achilles

Reading The Iliad is always an interesting experience.  That's why I've been on a Homeric marathon in recent months, and why I'm finishing it with translations rather than works inspired by the original tales.  Robert Graves provides an interesting and illuminating essay at the start of The Anger of Achilles that puts a lot of things into perspective, not the least being how exactly the original text came into being, and why what most people are familiar with is probably more of a detriment to reading it today than anything.

It's funny that classical learning used to mean that you learned languages and read things in their original versions, whereas today you're lucky just to care enough about classic works to read them in any translations.  It may be a mark of the education system or modern attention spans; on the former the bigger the push toward universal education may have actually pressed for standards that don't match what should actually be offered, while the latter is a constant refrain, especially with the flood of technology that allows people to be doing almost everything except what they're actually doing.

The Iliad in its basic story is almost exactly the opposite of what anyone will think about today as a complete story.  Most people will assume that it's the story of the Trojan War, when it's actually about very specific circumstances that don't necessary cover the beginning or conclusion of the conflict, instead focusing on the human perspectives that dictate the course of events, and the divine interventions that help shape it, centered mostly on the actions of Achilles, as he removes himself from the battlefield and is eventually persuaded back onto it.

There is a litany of death, an almost ritualistic parade of killing from one major warrior to the next, that seems to make up the majority of the text, which even in Graves' translation cannot be avoided, as well as language that reflects a classical lineage, which might almost be considered taken straight from a play, which is not so surprising because it comes from an oral history, and so basically was a play in its original incarnations.  Anyone who has ever wondered about the existence of Homer may want to pay close attention to the essay I've previously referenced; although Graves does not make it explicit he might as well have solved the mystery once and for all, and it's so obvious that of course very people have apparently considered it.  Homer is simply a guy who inherited this thing, and is probably the one who put it in its best possible shape, and then his disciples put it in writing, codified it, so to speak, and then, as Graves suspects, there were a few modifications later, and so on.

Bottom line is, Homer didn't start it, and he didn't finish it, but without him, we probably wouldn't know the story today, at least not in this specific form.  He's the reason it's the way it is, and is not a strict chronicle, but rather a lens into that world, how gods and men interacted.

Graves ditches, for the most part, the verse translation you'll probably think of off the bat, only occasionally resurrecting it to express poetic thoughts, and is for the most part a pretty refreshing take, very nearly bringing it kicking and screaming into a more familiar context.  It is still unmistakably the same shape and form as the story people have been reading for thousands of years, and so anyone reluctant to read it before will probably experience the same frustrations, but it's a lucid text for those already interested, a worthy effort to clear the cobwebs without disturbing the furniture.  It may become, for those who want to read The Iliad, the first destination along the path of exploring Homer's enduring legacy, even if there remains plenty of competition.

The story is a musty marvel, and remains fascinating no matter if you know Diomedes from Hector, which side they fought on, and how they compare to Achilles, whether any of them is truly worth respecting, and if you believe in the concept of gods as mythology or reality, or simply allegory.  There's a great deal to learn from reading it, and that's why it continues to endure, and why people like Robert Graves keep trying to make it newly relevant.
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